Talk about tests of faith. Douglas Kmiec is an influential Roman Catholic scholar, a veteran of Ronald Reagan's Justice Department and a Pepperdine University constitutional law professor. What he's gone through in the last handful of years, he sums up pretty well with the title of his latest book, "Lift Up Your Hearts: A true story of loving your enemies, tragically killing your friends, and the life that remains.'' His interfaith work earned him President Obama's appointment as ambassador to Malta. During his tour, he engineered the seagoing escape from Libya of Americans in February 2011 as civil war erupted, but he was criticized over his interfaith advocacy — and eventually resigned. Last month's killings in Benghazi have made Kmiec think more deeply about religion, politics and his own mission.
You're supporting President Obama again?
There are a few places where we had disagreements, [but] when you see someone who's devoted completely to people who have less than himself, who worries about our tax system and society and economic opportunities, how can you not be for those ideas and the person standing behind those ideas? So it's a no-brainer for me.
You were criticized, to say the least, for endorsing him in 2008.
People still tell me I will go to hell because I endorsed him. I listen and say they may be right, in which case I'll have a lot of special pleading to do at the Last Judgment. But the God I know is just and merciful, and people trying to do good in his name won't be turned away.
You knew Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, and so your response to his killing has been personal.
I've written President Obama and the secretary [of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton]: I would be willing to try to carry on Chris' work in Libya. Malta was Libya's closet neighbor. I can take some risks, and I know Chris took them with full knowledge. [Risks] are a statement of confidence that what we value will be respected by the Libyan people, and the Libyans will respect our presence.
The last thing Chris would want is for us to underestimate the importance of Libya and their commitment to a stable government based on the rule of law.
My first encounter with Libya was getting embassy [people] out of Tripoli when Kadafi decided he was not going to step aside. Things got very dangerous very quickly. I rented a catamaran and, with the concurrence of the secretary, we were able to get Chris and his staff out. It had to sail through tough seas. For a while it was pretty dicey; we brought everyone home safely.
What was your ambassadorial portfolio from the president?
There are 365 Catholic churches in Malta, and I said, "One for every day of the year," and he gave me that Obama smile and said, "Make sure you go." That was a very astute instruction. It got [me] out of the embassy and into neighborhoods.
Because Malta is a busy port and on the threshold of the Middle East, one primary responsibility was to ensure the effectiveness of Iranian sanctions.
He hoped an interfaith dialogue would give rise to a blossoming of diplomacy. He was inserting me in a pivot point: to the south, Africa and a Muslim world; to the east a Hebraic world; to the north, Christianity and Europe. He basically said, "See what you can do, so you can [anticipate] when sensitivities have been crossed that might give rise to violence or military action."
Had we been more advanced on that, Chris Stevens might still be alive; there would have been channels of communications where people could have raised their grievances.
It seems your State Department critics didn't get the memo about interfaith dialogue. They thought you spent too much time on such issues. Should the president have told them to back off?
I fully expected that was going to be the outcome, and to this day I'm not quite sure what made that impossible. My evaluation [by the Office of the Inspector General ] was a fair one; it had lots of compliments and lots of good constructive criticism. By the time it got published, all the compliments had disappeared. [Then a] project to do simulations of conflict resolution [with] faith-based techniques — the plug was pulled almost without explanation.
Did you get thrown under the bus?
I don't think so, because the president hasn't changed one iota from this [commitment to ecumenicism].
The line between private faith and the public sphere is a ferocious election issue. You were denied Communion in 2008.
I was invited to [speak at a meeting about] Catholic teaching as it applied to the election. I hadn't realized maybe it was something of a setup. The homily [at the Mass beforehand] was about the evilness of people endorsing Obama. When I got to the front of the Communion line, the priest said, "Not you.'' I said, "I think you're making a mistake, Father,'' and he said, "No, you're the one who made the mistake when you endorsed Barack Obama.''